Tales From the Public School Crypt

A case study in how far Detroit will go to punish charter-school students.


Students at Detroit Prep.
Students at Detroit Prep. PHOTO: ALI LAPETINA

Detroit’s public schools are among the nation’s worst, which may explain how far they’ll go to deny students a better choice. Witness how the school district is preventing a charter from expanding into an abandoned elementary school.

Detroit Prep is a public charter school with 80 students from kindergarten to second grade, and it plans to enroll 40 more kindergartners next year and eventually grow to about 500 students through eighth grade. More than 50% are African-American, and some 65% are from low-income families.

The school is currently crammed into a church basement and would like to buy a local elementary school that closed in 2009. The vacant building has more than 20 classrooms but is dilapidated, and the Detroit school district sold it to a developer a few years ago for $600,000. 

So what’s the problem? The property includes “deed restrictions,” and one is that the buyer must pay a percentage fee to the school district. Detroit Prep has offered to pay the surcharge and more. The school district stands to reap $150,000 from the sale of a property it doesn’t even own. That’s on top of the $750,000 the school is paying for the building, “which is already 20 percent more than the developer’s purchase price,” as Ben DeGrow of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy has noted.

Inside the elementary school Detroit Prep is looking to purchase.
Inside the elementary school Detroit Prep is looking to purchase. PHOTO: ALI LAPETINA

One more wrinkle. The deed stipulates that the Detroit school district must waive use of a property that isn’t residential, but Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has refused. This is a blatant violation of the law.

Detroit Prep points to a section of state law that says: “Unless approved by the state board, a school board or intermediate school board shall not impose any deed restriction prohibiting, or otherwise prohibit, property sold or transferred by the school board or intermediate school board from being used for any lawful public education purpose. Any deed restriction or other prohibition in effect as of the effective date of this subsection is void.”

That seems clear, but this summer the Michigan legislature made this language tougher. An exhibit in court documents is a letter from the lawmakers who drafted the 2017 law that says the intent was “to apply to any language in the deed that would impede the use of a building as a school.” And as Ingrid Jacques of the Detroit News points out, the new measure is retroactive, “meaning it applies in this case.”

The Detroit school district doesn’t appear burdened by matters as tedious as the law, so Detroit Prep is suing and awaits a decision from Wayne County Circuit Court. But Detroit Prep needs to fix up the building ahead of the new school year and can’t start construction on a litigation magnet. 

The farce is that the Detroit school district is spending money to defend the lawsuit even as it claims to lack the resources for basic education. The courts have an obligation to intercede in this ugly episode to vindicate the law and the interests of Motor City children.

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